House of Lords Appointment Commission (HOLAC) – Chronicle of a Death Foretold?

By: Colin Talbot

The House of Lords Appointment Commission (HOLAC) hasn’t often featured in the news in its 23-year history. To be sure, there have been on-going controversies over appointments to the Lords, but recently there have been a series of controversies in which HOLAC itself has featured more prominently.

First there was the controversy over the proposal from then Prime Minister Boris Johnson to appoint Dr Peter Cruddas to the Lords in 2022. HOLAC considered the nomination under its usual vetting criteria and recommended against the appointment. PM Johnson, as was his right, overruled the Commission and went ahead with elevating Dr Cruddas. This appears to be the first and only time a PM has overruled the Commission since it was set up by Tony Blair in 2000.

The other controversy in 2020 concerned the appointment of Evgeny Lebedev to the Lords as ‘Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia’ in December. There were reports at the time that security concerns had been raised about Lebedev because his father was a former KGB officer. Allegations have since emerged that the security services advised HOLAC, the Prime Minister and the Palace of their concerns. The appointment went ahead without any formal objection from HOLAC.

The third, more recent, controversy has surrounded the resignation honours list of Boris Johnson. HOLAC only deals with the nominations for the Lords, and not wider honours. In June 2023 HOLAC issued the following statement: 

“The House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) considered the nominations proposed by the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP in line with its usual processes. All nominations made by Mr Johnson were received and processed by HOLAC. Eight nominees were not supported by the Commission. The Commission is advisory to the Prime Minister and is not involved in the appointment processes after providing advice. The Commission does not comment on individuals.” (emphasis added).

This was an unusually high number of rejections, albeit to an unusually high number of nominations,  but they were accepted by Prime Minister Sunak. Furthermore some of the successful nominations that were passed by HOLAC remained controversial.

Shaun Bailey – the former London mayoral candidate – and Ben Houchen – the Tees Valley Mayor, are both now under investigation. Bailey for a lockdown party at CCHQ and Houchen for alleged irregularities around the Tees Valley redevelopment. Both investigations have surfaced after HOLAC had vetted their nominations.

A third nomination has also been questioned – Charlotte Tranter Owen – a 29-year old former special adviser. Questions have been raised about why she qualified for the Lords.

It should be stressed HOLAC did not recommend against any of these three nominations.

HOLAC – ORIGINS & ROLE

The origins of the Appointment Commission lie in New Labour’s commitment to House of Lords reform and were developed in opposition and carried into Government in 1997.

Alexandra Kelso[1] summed up the position in 1997 thus:

“The 1997 Labour manifesto commitment on Lords reform is one of political pragmatism ….

“The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered.“ (Labour Party 1997, emphasis added)

The manifesto committed to a review of the appointment of life peers, to maintain the presence of cross-bench peers, and to work towards a situation where no one party would have a majority in the second chamber. As far as the second stage of reform was concerned, a joint committee of both Houses was promised ‘to undertake a wide-ranging review of possible further change and then to bring forward proposals for reform’ (Labour Party 1997).

This two-stage approach aimed to combine the political goal of ejecting the hereditary peers with the appearance of working towards a more conclusive settlement.”

However, the new Government were slow to act on Lords reform and other Constitutional reforms – especially devolution to Scotland and Wales – took precedence. It wasn’t until late 1998 that a White Paper and legislation focussed on the first stage of Lords reform – removing the hereditary Peers – appeared.

These changes included the establishment of HOLAC on a non-statutory basis as a non-departmental public body (NDPB). The White Paper[2] explained this decision thus:

“At present, a Prime Minister has sole power of patronage in nominating to The Queen those to be appointed to life peerages. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he is prepared for the first time ever to take steps to reduce this unfettered power of patronage in this area. The Government will establish an independent Appointments Commission to recommend non-political appointments to the transitional House. The Prime Minister will undertake not to veto either its recommendations or those of other party leaders which have received the Commission’s vetting clearance.” (emphasis added)

It is possible to see this as in some ways a concession to those critical of the New Labour government for not wholly removing the hereditary Peers from the Lords – 92 had been left as a ‘temporary’ measure to get the House of Lords Act 1999 through Parliament. Reducing the power of the Prime Minister and somewhat opening-up the process of life-peerage appointments was seen as a way of softening the blow of not entirely removing the hereditary Peers.

­­­­­­­­­As a consequence HOLA has two roles: one is to vet all nominations to the Lords, except those being appointed in order to take up Ministerial roles, and advise the Prime Minister. The other role, and this was an innovation, was to ask for and process nominations (including self-nominations). As their last report stated:

“Anyone who is over 21 and a citizen of the UK, Ireland or a Commonwealth country can apply or be nominated to be a member of the House of Lords. It is also a requirement that individuals are resident in the UK for tax purposes.”

Since HOLAC started this open process in 2000 some 74 new members of the House of Lords have been appointed through this route, many of whom have gone on to be very active and prominent members.

Chairman and Members of the Appointments Commission

The Commission is an independent, advisory, non-departmental public body. It was established by the Prime Minister in May 2000.

The Commission has seven members, including the Chair. Three members were appointed to represent the main political parties. The other three members and the Chair are non-political and independent of Government.

The members of the Commission are:
– Lord (Paul) Bew (Chair)
– Rt Hon and Rt Rev Lord Richard Chartres KCVO
– Vacant – following resignation of Harry Mount in September 2022
– The Lord-Lieutenant of Belfast, Mrs Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle CBE DL
– Baroness (Ann) Taylor of Bolton (Labour)
– Baroness (Sheila) Noakes (Conservative)
– Baroness (Kate) Parminter (Liberal Democrat)

The Commission has two main functions:
– to recommend individuals for appointment as non-party-political life peers
– to vet nominations for life peers, including those nominated by the UK political parties, to ensure the highest standards of propriety.

from the HOLCA website https://lordsappointments.independent.gov.uk/the-commission-2

HOLAC IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The ‘temporary’ arrangement of HOLAC is now 23 years old. For most of that time it has been relatively uncontroversial and unnoticed. So why has it suddenly entered the political spotlight?

Some of the controversy has arisen because of misunderstandings about HOLACs role and powers.

Firstly, it is purely an advisory body to the Prime Minister of the day. It has remained largely uncontroversial because Prime Ministers Blair, Brown, Cameron and May accepted it’s advice. As did the political parties when notified one of their nominees could not be supported by HOLAC. That is until Boris Johnson decided to push through the Cruddas nomination against HOLAC’s advice.

Secondly, HOLACs role in vetting nominations is limited to examining their probity, national security and other ‘bona fides’ for nomination to the Lords. Not whether they are suitably qualified, in career or experience terms, nominees for the Lords. Thus in the case of Charlotte Tranter Owen it was not for HOLAC to say whether she was ‘qualified’ for the Lords. And in the cases of Shaun Bailey and Ben Houchen the current investigations happened after their nominations had been processed by HOLAC.

In its first report (2003) HOLAC stated that:

“The Commission wishes to be satisfied, among other things, that nominees are not and never have been a threat to the national security of the UK or any other country…” (para 51)

Given recent media reporting about national security concerns about Evgeny Lebedev, why did HOLAC not apparently raise these? Commission sources confirm that vetting usually includes regulatory bodies, government departments, police, the Electoral Commission, and the security services. The Commission also does media checks.

The Commission deals directly with the security services and were fully aware of their concerns about Lebedev. In evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) of the House of Commons Lord Bew, chair of HOLAC has said:

“What has gone on here—and I really want to stress this—is that there has been a protracted dialogue between us and between all the agencies.” (20 April 2022)

Asked whether pressure had been applied to HOLAC to agree the nomination of Lebedev he stated:

“There was no pressure about this candidate [Evgeny Lebedev].”

In the same evidence session Lord Bew said that HOLACs decision to advise against the elevation of Peter Cruddas had created a difficult situation for HOLAC. It worth quoting the exchange about this at length:

Q52 Mr Jones: May I ask where you think it leaves you?

Lord Bew: I think it leaves us in a much more fragile place than we were in before. Let me be clear: it is definitely his [the Prime Minister’s] right to do that which he did [go ahead with Cruddas appointment].

Nobody in HOLAC or any previous Chairman would disagree on that particular point. Nobody would disagree, but none the less it raises issues and it heightens the debate about putting HOLAC on a statutory basis, although that will not magically solve all problems. Anyway, everybody around this table knows that there is this wider debate about the future of the House of Lords, which is well beyond my paygrade. But yes, it places us in a very difficult situation.

It is inevitable that the Committee feels — let us just be blunt — somewhat raw about what happened, and it knows that its credibility would be seriously — I don’t want to make an absolute prediction, because I have now learned that the circumstances are so varied that you cannot quite anticipate what might come up. But you have got to realise that it is extremely problematical for the survival of the Committee in most envisageable circumstances were it to happen again.” (Emphasis added)

WHITHER HOLAC?

When HOLAC was first established in 2000 there followed a flurry of interest from Select Committees in both Houses of Parliament in how it was operating. But it is fair to say that interest waned as the ‘temporary’ HOLAC settled in to being a part of the institutional fabric of Parliament.

In the immediate future there is a new PACAC Inquiry into Membership of the House of Lords. https://committees.parliament.uk/call-for-evidence/3168/

This includes questions about HOLAC itself, obviously as a consequence of recent events.:

“House of Lords Appointments Committee (HOLAC) 

  • Is HOLAC carrying out its role effectively? 
  • Are changes needed to the role and powers of HOLAC? If so, what, how and why?” 

A PACAC Inquiry is unlikely to lead to changes in the immediate future, especially not before the General Election. But the Labour Party has already indicated its intention to return to the issues surrounding the House of Lords, its functions and composition.

But as Alexandra Kelso points out in her excellent book on Parliamentary reform, there has always been a deep problem with Lords reform. Many MPs, of most parties, are wary of any change to the status of “the other place” that enhances its legitimacy and, in a zero-sum game, thereby undermines the absolute sovereignty of the Commons. Whether or not a new Government will finally complete the long drawn out reform of the second chamber and in the process HOLAC becomes collateral damage remains to be seen.


[1] Alexandra Kelso, Parliamentary Reform at Westminster, 2009, Manchester University Press. See chapter 8 for the full story of New Labour’s reforms.

[2] Modernising Parliament – Reforming the House of Lords. Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty, December 1998. Cm 4183